Gallery Going, May
Anita Huffington’s sculpture at O’Hara Gallery; Reality, Chelsea style at Spike Gallery; Vincent Pomilio at Van Brunt Gallery
Anita Huffington is a sculptor of rare distinction. Within the boundaries of a restricted range, she has created transcendent images of the human figure. Her torsos maintain a delicate point of balance, their dynamic poise bequeathed by the fifth century Polykleitos. The finest pieces in this exhibition are her most characteristic: the upright female torso, a closed form fragmented and simplified into a controlled mass of solid stone. Her torsos are elegant, classically refined, distilled to Doric severity.
Figures are first carved, usually in sandstone or alabaster, and later cast in bronze in small editions. The foundry process makes individual images available to more purchasers but it can jeopardize the soul of the stone cutting. Chiseled originals exhibited here together with their cast variant emphasize the extent to which the beauty of Huffington’s work arises from qualities unique to stone.
Her sandstone pieces suggest artifacts excavated from an archeological site, relics of antiquity. Pitted and striated, they are geological journeys into time, linking the human body to the very stuff of creation. This show, however, is limited to white alabaster sculptures and their black bronze copies. For anyone coming upon her work for the first time, it is an incomplete introduction.
The elemental simplicity of her work requires the evocative power and textural interest of stone. Surface effects can be simulated satisfactorily in the patination phase when casting from sedimentary sandstone. But they are lost in black bronze molded from smooth alabaster. The bronzes on view are sleek but cold. Something of the corporate vestibule attaches to them.
The translucency of alabaster seems to light “Moonrise,” (2003) from within. The arching torso is veined in a luminous, crystalline nexus of stress lines that suggest interior anatomy without imitating it. Shaped with a gem-cutter’s sensitivity and economy, it seems almost to breathe. Its bronze copy, “Dark Moonrise”, (2003) maintains the graceful contour but loses limpidity. It is inert by comparison.
So, too, are the three reclining figures. An interior tension enlivens the stasis of her upright figures while reclining ones tend to go slack. The architectural element gives way to a sculptural as well as figural lassitude. Her two Aphrodites, mildly undulant, seem to sink into their material rather than emerge from it.
Ask to see the catalog of her previous show. And be sure to look in the adjoining room for the magical “Forest Figure,” (2000) cast from a carved piece of jagged and rotted log. If you do, you will gain a clearer understanding of Huffington’s sculptural intelligence and achievement.
In artspeak, reality is a word for rent. It can be hired out and carpeted with whatever meaning suits the moment. Right now, at Spike Gallery, it means a hook to hang unrelated paintings on. With three notable exceptions, “Reality Check” is a jumble of representational works, many of them aching to enlighten us.
Expect excursions into social commentary, Chelsea style. The shallowness of the treatises is secondary to prevailing boredom with the act of painting. Martin Mull wants us to get real about middle class family life. But the message is as fuzzy as the 1950s photos he copies with paint-by-number fidelity. Sharon Thomas would set us straight about the empowerment of women. She communicates the gravity of her concern by posing a pouting female, in tutu and pink ballet slippers, in a vasty wilderness.
Angelina Gualdoni is on a soapbox about the landscape. Her stylized, oddly serene “If There’s a Way to Build, There will be a Way to Destroy, Things Are Not All That Out of Control,” (2003), is classically balanced and tonally appealing despite dead-pan paint application. The central wreckage lends interest and color to an otherwise bland setting, causing her complaint to misfire.
Don Porcella’s “Deer Hunter” (2003), possibly an anti-gun declaration, was made totally with melted crayons. That is all you need to know about it.
Amid the hectoring is Steve Miller’s presumed dialogue between science and art. A member of the self-invented art-sci community, Mr. Miller silkscreens onto canvas a black and white text book diagram of a cellular structure penciled over with scientific notations. How intimate is Miller with the mathematics of nuclear biology? Would he know a Poisson process from a bouillabaisse? Do not confuse his “On Going Advances” (2003) with Ross Bleckner’s influential and haunting cell paintings. Bleckner paints; Miller merely picks the pocket of a more authoritative discipline than his own.
In this context, photorealism looks downright exciting. It was a relief to find Richard Estes’ “Donohue’s” (1967-68). The enthusiasm of its address to the eye was palpable and welcome. So was Albert Shelton’s diptych of the Bedford-Nostrand Avenue subway platform. He pushes local color, playing the red verticals of painted steel columns against the running horizontal of green wall tiles. At 23, Shelton can only get better. Keep watch.
Ferrar Hood has an equal sympathy with the capacities of oil paint and is very good with drapery. From the look of things, she seems to be groping for a subject. If she simply turns her gifts to the visual world, she will do just fine.
Vincent Pomilio’s mixed media paintings are lively descendants of Pollack’s all-over approach. He handles paint with a vivacity that it is less spontaneous, more deliberately crafted, than first appears. After establishing a base—overall color harmony and compositional rhythm—he tapes or rules off small sections at a time and digs back in. He paints, scrapes, repaints, manipulating and building up a tapestry of small units that cohere happily around color and texture. On occasion, he scribbles graphite marks over the finished image, a device considered by some as evidence of a unshackled spirit at work. In fact, it is an affectation that mars appealing canvases.
“Anita Huffington: Light and Shadow: Alabaster/Bronze” at O’Hara Gallery, 41 East 57 Street, NYC. Tel: 212.355.3330.
“Reality Check” at Spike Gallery, 547 West 20th Street , NYC. Tel: 212.627.4100.
“Vincent Pomilio: New Paintings” at Van Brunt Gallery, 819 Washington Street, at Gansevoort, NYC. Tel: 212.243.8572.
A version of this review appeared in The New York Sun, May 13, 2004
©2004 Maureen Mullarkey